It could be an Arena Bowl preview. If so, the Spokane Shock want to accumulate every edge possible along the way.
Top-ranked Spokane (13-2) closes the regular season against No. 3 Jacksonville (11-4) tonight. Spokane has earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Jacksonville needs a victory to ensure hosting rights in the first two rounds. A loss could drop the Sharks to the third seed in the American Conference and potentially two road playoff games.
Spokane knocked off then-No. 1 Jacksonville 67-57 in May, but the Sharks weren’t convinced the better team won. They played without standout defensive back Micheaux Robinson, who leads the team with six interceptions and 19 pass breakups. Sharks coaches protested, unsuccessfully, that the ground caused Kirby Griffin’s momentum-changing fumble in the fourth quarter.
The rematch comes tonight with Spokane riding an 11-game winning streak and Jacksonville desperate for a victory.
“If we see Jacksonville in the championship game and they’re the No. 1 seed they would have an easier road to get there,” Shock coach Rob Keefe said. “If we knock them to No. 3 and we still see them, we’re setting ourselves up in a good situation because they’ll have to go on the road for one or two playoff games.
“Other than Tampa Bay, who we didn’t play, we’ve beaten every other team in the playoffs. Every game has a purpose. I don’t want anybody to have a mental edge over us.”
For the Sharks, the importance of this one is evident. Veteran quarterback Aaron Garcia, who separated his right (throwing) shoulder and suffered a concussion two weeks ago, is expected to suit up. Jacksonville’s talented group of receivers welcomes the return of Jeron Harvey after a five-game absence.
It’s not known whether Garcia or Bernard Morris will start. Morris, who backed up Shock quarterback Kyle Rowley in Arkansas last season, led the Sharks to wins over Tampa Bay and Bossier-Shreveport the last two weeks.
“He’s finally getting a chance to prove that he’s a very good quarterback,” Rowley said. “A lot of times when you play behind somebody that’s solidified the starting spot, you have a tendency not to show up with a serious attitude in practice, but he’s not one of those guys. He’s a great athlete.”
Spokane has several team and individual milestones within reach. A victory gives Spokane an 8-0 road record. With 61 points, the Shock would reach 1,000 for the season. Rowley is four touchdown passes away from 100.
Coaches’ ballots for individual and All-AFL awards are due Sunday. Tonight’s game, which will be televised live on NFL Network, is Spokane’s last chance to impress the voters.
William Mulder returns to the Shock lineup after resting various ailments last week.